Third-World Poverty Among the Most Native Americans of All

Cleaning out my email box, I came belatedly on a post by Nick Tilsen, Executive Director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, which aims to end poverty on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Poverty there is broader and deeper than any we commonly read about — truly shocking to think it’s here in America.

The poverty rate of the Oglala Lakota who live on the reservation is about 48%, according to a development plan. That’s nearly three and a half times the latest rate for South Dakota, though it’s home to six Indian reservations.

We see the ripple effect of such acute deprivation in median incomes. On Pine Ridge, the household halfway between the highest and lowest has an income of $27,065 — or at least did in 2010, when the Census Bureau collected the figures the planners used.*

The median income for the state as a whole was about $19,300 higher then and the nationwide median about $24,000 higher.

We get a better sense of what Tilsen refers to as “third-world poverty conditions” from other figures he pulls from the development plan.

For example, the average household on the Pine Ridge reservation consists of somewhere between 6.7 and 9.2 people, as compared to 2.6 people nationwide. This clearly indicates severe over-crowding — as many as nine people in a two or three-bedroom home.

Nine percent of the dwellings have inadequate plumbing, as compared to a half percent nationwide. In other words, the houses or apartment units don’t have hot and cold running water, a bathtub or shower and/or a flush toilet. Or they may not have even a substandard bathroom.

Almost as many Pine Ridge dwellings (8%) lack adequate kitchen facilities, i.e., a sink with running water, a refrigerator and a stove or other “built-in burners” like those sunk into countertops.

Living conditions account in part, though far from entirely for the average life expectancy of Pine Ridge residents — just 48 years for men and 52 for women. Both are about 30 years less than for the U.S. population as a whole.

The development plan cites other factors that help explain the foreshortened lives of Pine Ridge residents — lack of access to healthful food, for example, and to preventive health care.

All these and others closely related, e.g., substance abuse, help account for another reason Pine Ridge residents, on average, die before they reach middle age — a suicide rate that’s more than twice the national average.

It’s customary — and largely correct — to trace the relatively high black poverty rate back to slavery, the Jim Crow regime and racist laws and policies that disadvantaged blacks in Northern states.

The Native American poverty rate has historical roots too. Those of us whose history classes predate efforts to put a more positive spin on the westward expansion, among other things, know something of them — smallpox-infected blankets, massacres, treaties broken when whites decided they wanted the lands granted after all.

We may even know that a unilateral decision made back in 1840 transferred control of Native American lands and other assets to a federal agency. It still acts as trustee, despite a long track record of mismanagement.

Shawn Regan at the Property and Environment Research Center argues that the trust arrangement, plus other federal controls “keep Native Americans in poverty.”

Tilsen also cites policies designed to eradicate “cultural ways,” e.g., forcing children into boarding schools where they had to look and behave like white, Christian children — this because “all the Indian in the race should be dead,” as the founder of the first such federally-funded school explained.

Well, knowing what accounts for the extraordinary poverty in Native American communities is one thing. Feeling morally responsible for ending it quite another. People in those communities believe we should, Tilsen says. If we do, we could end their poverty within a generation.

That seems a tall order. But he’s done a fine service in raising awareness of a poverty still perpetuated that’s “largely out of sight and out of mind to mainstream American society.”

* The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey — the usual source of our most detailed poverty and income figures for specific populations — reports them for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives together. The plan drafters presumably used the actual data sets.

 

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